Quick Hit – The Modesty Experiment

Ruby Hamad has written an fascinating article in response to blogger Lauren Shield’s book about dressing modestly for 9 months in an attempt to subvert the American beauty culture. While Hamad has no problems whatsoever with the subverting of beauty culture what does frustrate her is that Shields chose to do this as a way of experiencing what a Muslim woman, who chooses to cover up, may feel.

“In America”, Shield’s blog banner gravely announces, “we see Islamic women all covered up and think, ‘That poor woman, made to be ashamed of her body!’ But is it any less oppressive to convince a woman that her uncovered body is never beautiful enough? Is covering enslavement… or freedom? I want to find out.”

Shields spent nine months conducting her “experiment”, during which she “covered all of my hair, wore nothing that was so fitted that I felt like I had to sit or stand funny to look good, and never exposed my knees or my shoulders, except at home. With rare exceptions, I wore no makeup or nail polish.”

Shields is railing against the Western beauty ideal that expects women to spend excessive amounts of time and money to dress in what amounts to “a Grown-Up suit.” In that I couldn’t agree with her more. However, Shields, who can only witness Muslim culture through her own Western lens, falls into the trap of romanticising the “modesty” of Muslim women for whom covering themselves is itself a religious requirement.

Read the whole thing. Hamad shows why this sort of cultural appropriation is both unhelpful and ultimately unenlightening for the person doing it as well.

What struck me at first about the description of Shield’s experiment was that she could have just dressed with no makeup, nail polish, high heels and wearing ‘modest’ clothing without needing to try link it to anyone’s particular religion. Plenty of women dress this way all the time because it is comfortable, cheap, they can’t wear makeup or heels, they are wearing a uniform for much of their lives, or for a myriad of other reasons or simply because that’s how they like it.

If she specifically wanted to experience what it is like for religious women covering up for ‘modesty’ then she could have chosen from a whole raft of other religions.

Infographic of religious women with head coverings. Top row left to right: Amish; Buddhist Nun (Japanese); Cao Dai Nun; Catholic Nun; Catholic (woman wearing lace mantilla); Druze. Second row left to right: Eastern Orthodox Nun, Easter Orthodox; Hindu; Jain Nun; Mennonite. Third row left to right: Muslim child; Orthodox Jewish; Sabian; Sikh (baptized); Taoist Nun; Zoroastrian.

Infographic of religious women with head coverings. Top row left to right: Amish; Buddhist Nun (Japanese); Cao Dai Nun; Catholic Nun; Catholic (woman wearing lace mantilla); Druze. Second row left to right: Eastern Orthodox Nun, Easter Orthodox; Hindu; Jain Nun; Mennonite. Third row left to right: Muslim child; Orthodox Jewish; Sabian; Sikh (baptized); Taoist Nun; Zoroastrian.

I think it is an interesting thing to try in and of itself, especially as a young woman who may have been accustomed to wearing make up and heels and fashionable clothes, to step outside of that to experience how you are treated by society when you go against societies expectations and I will probably read her book. But I am not comfortable with the idea that doing this would give you any insight into someone else’s reality.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, gender & feminism, Life, religion, Sociology

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20 replies

  1. Some very interesting commentary. I hadn’t heard of the experiment before, but to be honest the idea of ‘modesty’ as a response to Western beauty standards seems a bit weird to me. Surely there are ways to not buy into all the compulsory sexiness stuff that also don’t buy into the baggage associated with the term ‘modesty’? (And cultural appropriation, obviously?)

  2. Surely there are ways to not buy into all the compulsory sexiness stuff that also don’t buy into the baggage associated with the term ‘modesty’?
    Punk, for example. Not that subcultures don’t have their own standards of beauty, but there are ways of rejecting conventional beauty standards besides modesty.

  3. Punk is a sub-culture with which I’m really familiar. But don’t kid yourself, when it comes to women they have the same beauty standards as everyone else. Punk women who don’t wear makeup, who don’t shave, who are fat, who wear baggy clothes are not generally considered as attractive as slim women who shave, wear makeup, and wear sexy clothing. The primary difference is that tattoos, piercings, and torn clothing are de rigueur.

  4. The burqa and bikini are two sides of the same coin, i.e. the idea that women are sexual property – private property in the case of burqa and public property in the case of bikini.
    I have a friend who was on a flight with a woman in a burqa. When my friend went to the ladies’ room in the airport, she encountered the same woman without her burqa. She was heavily made-up, jazzily dressed and covered in jewelry. My friend thought this was hypocritical. Nope. It is very much consistent with being a private sexual property. The burqa is just the tent hiding the private sexual property from public use.
    On the other side, how often do we see ads in the west using women’s bikini-clad bodies to market beaches to tourists. There was one ad in which a man is standing in the bitter cold and talking to another man just back from a beach vacation. “Were there girls?” he asks. “Yes, lots of girls” the other guys answers. “Girls in bikinis?” the first guy wistfully sighs.

  5. I think William Shatner pointed out some of the problems with this kind of behaviour, be it fat suits, a year of living “unemployed”, or any temporary experiemnt with your safety net or escape hatch out of view, with
    “You’ll never get it right, when you’re laying there at night… if you call your Dad you can stop it all,
    You’ll never live like (synechdoched) people, you’ll never do whatever (synechdoched) people do, you’ll never fail like (synechdoched) people, you’ll never watch your life slide out of view”
    This attempt at looking clever brought to you by the word synechdoche.

  6. Or, of course, one could try the system I’ve been living with for the past twenty or so years, after I realised my chances of “winning” at the beauty game were slim-to-nonexistent. The game was rigged. I chose to stop playing.
    These days, I choose clothes for comfort primarily, rather than how they’re going to look on me. I have a few outfits chosen for looks (my “interview” clothes). I don’t shave my armpits or legs (although most of the time you’d be hard pressed to notice – I tend to wear shirts with sleeves and jeans most of the year round) and I don’t choose my shoes for “fashion” but rather for comfort as well. I don’t wear make-up or dye my hair (despite the increasing amount of grey). I don’t participate in diet talk. I don’t buy fashion magazines (and as a result, most of the time I don’t read them either), ditto the “women’s” magazines in the newsagents and supermarkets. I don’t watch television except on very rare occasions. About the only concession I make toward gendered beauty roles is that I shave my facial hair.
    Basically, I chose to opt out of the whole damn argument because, as far as I’m concerned, for me to try and deal with the highly gendered requirements for “looking good” involves me in a lot of extra work to no real purpose. I refuse to put in the extra three hours per day (minimum) that “looking good” would require of me that it doesn’t require of my partner (who can manage “looking good” by combing his hair, and putting on a clean shirt).
    At times it isn’t comfortable, and at times I’m sure I’ve missed out on opportunities because I’m not going to all that extra effort. But on the other hand, I’ve spared myself a lot of discomfort, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of expense.

  7. There is also some fascinating understandings of ‘modesty’ going on in this approach, as if we (the west) don’t have our own conceptions of modesty that are in play – rather ‘modesty’ is now something we go to ‘other’ cultures to obtain. Are we so shameless? Moreover, there are plenty of mainstream Christian sects who are big on modesty, and often their modesty plays into cultural beauty norms – so some American sects insist women wear (conservative) makeup for modesty reasons, do their hair, dress well (as it’s feminine and so ‘modest’); many require skirts on women etc. So, it’s a simplistic and problematic approach to modesty for all sorts of annoying reasons.
    I actually was just in an argument with someone on facebook who posted a meme (aimed at his teenage daughters) that pretty much said ‘Real Men’ fuck ‘Girls’ who dress modestly. Ok, it didn’t use the word fuck but that was the gist, so modesty is still an ideal being bandied about in the mainstream West.

  8. I find Snog, Marry, Avoid (the TV show, screens channel 11, also readily found on youtube) is instructive in the whole western concept of modesty. The show insists, over and over, that it is in favour of natural beauty only, and nothing else. Yet their concept of natural beauty still includes hair removal, hair colouring, high heels, nail polish, make up, short or tight or otherwise revealing clothing. There are few things they actually strenuously and consistently object to, such as aesthetic surgeries, tattoos and piercings other than one in each ear lobe, fake tan, hair extensions.
    The show boils down to “we disagree with your interpretation of external standards of dress and decoration, here, use our interpretation of society’s standards of dress and decoration instead”, while being piled on with a heap of public shaming, and asking strangers how f*$#able they think the person is, before and after.
    I also noted recently reading about a survey of men, asking them if they preferred women wearing makeup or without makeup. Most said they preferred no makeup. They then showed the men pictures of women, one wearing makeup and one without. 70% of men preferred the picture of the woman with makeup on.

  9. Good article, Mindy. I had the same thought reading it, described much better by commenters here already: why didn’t Shields just wear loose Western clothing, ditch the makeup and maybe chuck on a headscarf? She had no need to appropriate a specific, “other” form of dress. It was as irrelevant as dressing as a nun, or in conservative black clothing from, say, a Greek village decades ago (don’t know if such clothes are still worn).
    I too could dress “modestly” in the covering-up sense without having to get any new clothes. Loose jeans or a long skirt? Check. Long-sleeved tops and loose knitwear? Check. I’d fail if dull colours or black were required, but then it’s not like the Muslim women I see wearing long, loose, modest clothes aren’t also displaying beautiful fabrics and colours.
    Then there’s that whole thing people have raised about the definition of modesty. I wear defining clothes often enough, or tunics that flare below the bust and show a little cleavage. They catch the eye because they’re unusual, and I take pleasure in my appearance in them. Is that immodest? I guess it is, since I’m not being self-effacing, let alone ashamed. But I don’t think of them that way, because I am specifically not doing it to attract sexual attention. I dress to please myself and Mr K, though he’s easily pleased, lol. “Dressing modestly” is so bound up with the sexual element. I don’t feel anything like immodestly dressed except on the rare occasions I’ve worn a fairly scooped sort of top. (Bare legs or leggings as trousers are Not a Thing in my wardrobe.)
    Strewth, that got rambly. I hope it made some sense. 🙂

  10. Matt, that song was originally by Pulp. Shatner just took the melody out of it.
    Modesty in Islam is a code-word for ‘lack of freedom’ – freedom to wear clothing that is safe and comfortable.

  11. Another bizarre variation on exercising the doctrine of modesty for women is in the traveller communities in Ireland and some parts of England. Teenage girls are expected to dress half naked in spandex and rhinestones, fake tan, ankle breaker heels heavy makeup, the whole bit, but absolutely NOT to do anything with the boys on pain of being disowned as a whore. Then at 16 or 17 they marry a local boy who picked them out at a cousin’s wedding, after strictly fending off all his ritual attempts to transgress her virtue. The manner of dress is for advertising the goods only, for purchase not hire. I wouldn’t be surprised if the series Arcadia mentions is setting its parameters in part so as to distinguish its participants from those conventions ( there’s a lot of racism/classism against travellers).

  12. Modesty in Islam is a code-word for ‘lack of freedom’ – freedom to wear clothing that is safe and comfortable.

    What do you mean by this?
    “In Islam” as opposed to Modesty in Christianity, which has a history of expecting men and women – but especially women – to cover their bodies?
    Or the “lack of modesty” in secular Australian society, where we get to wear ‘safe’ clothing like high heels and miniskirts?

  13. Modesty and immodesty both mean the woman’s behaviour is up for judgement.
    The woman is not in control of how she is perceived. It is the observer who gets to decide whether to approve or disapprove.
    The author of the book traded one set of external markers for another. I don’t know why she didn’t compare her dress code to a conservative observant Jewish woman, rather than a Muslim one.
    When you are a woman, whatever you do is wrong.
    Am I sounding radical? I think I’m sounding radical.

  14. Yup.
    It gets my back up when peeps use Islam as a go-to for an example of policing women’s bodies through clothing. It feels like the kids in the schoolyard all ganging up on that one kid, constantly.
    I was raised Catholic, and I had a conversation this week past with a friend who still is, that reminded me of the “modesty” expectations of that church.

  15. If she really wants to know what it’s like to live outside society’s beauty expectations she could try not shaving her legs and wearing a short skirt…

  16. Aphie and angharad – takes me back to high school in the 70s, but then it was being scorned for not wearing a bum-revealingly short skirt.
    One day I’m gonna do an experiment of wearing a sleeveless top (I do not shave the oxters ever) and a push-up bra and see if that gets any weird looks on the train. Prolly not, most people are asleep or reading on my commute.

  17. When I was a student and still Catholic someone once rang up my mother, despite the fact that she had moved interstate, to complain about what I was wearing to mass.

  18. Good grief.
    Makes me want to turn up to Mass in the sort of gear worn by upper-class women in times past. I bet the complainer would freak at the cleavage on display.
    … which in turn reminds me of Louis XIV complaining to his sister-in-law the duchesse d’Orleans that she was inappropriately dressed for Mass one winter day. I can’t recall if she had a fur wrap on (Court dress was off-the-shoulder) or was in hunting dress, which she wore much of the time. At any rate she retorted that it was a better look than the blue shoulders the “properly” dressed women were showing.

  19. Heh! I actually have a 1660’s era dress (well, reproduction, not a real one!) and it is indeed rather revealing.
    But in my case it was more about short skirts and lack of shoes. I went through a phase of going largely barefoot for a while.

  20. No bare shoulders! Even thick straps are baaaad, spaghetti types are right out.
    And I remember having HUGE arguments over my long sleeve, not-quite-kneelength, loosely fitted (revealing of the fact I had entered puberty and had breasts, hips and a waist) Confirmation outfit. My mother made me wear her friend’s oversize trench coat in the Church.

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